John Carpenter poses with a Michael Myers "Halloween" mask sign while signing copies of his first comic book, "Asylum," at Golden Apple Comics on October 27, 2013. Credit: Getty Images
“What’s wrong with these people?” John Carpenter says when he’s told Netflix Instant runs “Big Trouble in Little China,” his 1986 martial arts fantasy action-comedy starring Kurt Russell, in the wrong aspect ratio. Luckily, the film is treated better elsewhere. Long one of the most popular out of the many cult favorites made by the filmmaker, it’s been given a sequel, at least in the form of a new comic book of the same name, which Carpenter co-wrote with Eric Powell (“The Goon”). Carpenter will also be in Philadelphia for this weekend’s Awesome Fest, which will run a retrospective of his storied work along with a Q&A.
Has it been strange doing "Big Trouble in Little China" as a comic book and not as a film?
No. It’s still a script. Eric Powell does most of the work and I say, “Oh, good job, guys!” I’m consulting on it, talking about various issues, what to do in certain places, that kind of thing.
Kurt Russell’s performance is so key to the character he’s playing. It must be odd to write for him without Russell saying the lines.
His performance is definitely a big deal. But it wasn’t weird. I understand his character. I get him. So does Eric Powell. He can speak in his voice.
Could you imagine this being a movie?
I’ve learned something in the movie business: You never saw never about anything. Never. So who knows? I don’t know.
You’re closely identified with horror and action and thrillers. But your favorite films tend to be Westerns.
What I wanted to do when I got into the movie business was make Westerns. But Westerns were dead. That was not possible for me. But hey, I’m happy with what happened. I had a dream when I was eight-years-old: I wanted to be a movie director. And my dream came true. A lot of people don’t get to say that.
Kurt Russell played the wise-cracking, John Wayne-ish hero of the 1986 film "Big Trouble in Little China." Credit: Getty Images
It’s interesting that your only straight-up Hawks remake — “The Thing” — is probably the least Hawks-ian of your films, in terms of how no one gets along.
It’s also a movie of its time. Hawks’ picture was very much of the time. 1982 was a different time in the country. Trust was a big issue. The ’80s were not a great time for trust.
“They Live” is even bluntly critical of the era. And its critique of materialism and class chasms are perhaps even more relevant today.
The ’80s never ended. They just kept going and going and going. They’re still with us today. The same issues are rumbling around. We haven’t learned anything. We never will.
Originally you envisioned “Halloween” as a series that kept switching villains. What baddies did you have in mind?
I didn’t have them ready to go. I thought there wasn’t much story [with Michael Myers] left. Boy, was I wrong. We made “Halloween III” [with a different villain], but it was not a hit at the box office. Everyone got mad. So I didn’t do it anymore.
Kurt Russell played the King in John Carpenter's 1979 TV movie "Elvis." Credit: Getty Images
Very occasionally you’ve made something that wasn’t strictly a genre picture. How did the guy who had just made “Halloween” get chosen to make the 1979 TV movie “Elvis,” with Kurt Russell?
Every TV director in town turned down “Elvis.” They thought it was going to be a sham, a piece of crap. I was their last resort. They thought, "This guy knows music, maybe he can do it."
And besides, Elvis had played a character named “Dr. John Carpenter” in the film “Change of Habit.”
It was one of his fake names he used to travel under.
You’ve scored a lot of your films. Was music also one of your first passions?
I grew up with it. My dad was a music teacher. He had a PhD from Eastern School of Music and was a virtuoso violinist. My dad made the mistake of trying to teach me the violin at the age of eight. Unfortunately I had no talent.
Why did you gravitate towards electronic music?
It was something I could master. It was a keyboard instrument, and I could play keyboard. And you sound big with one person playing.
Your scores seem to be really influential on today’s electronic pop music.
I guess. I don’t know. I just try to mind my own business and not get into trouble.
You took a break after 2001’s “Ghosts of Mars,” but you came back for a couple episodes of “Masters of Horror” and 2010’s “The Ward.” How did it feel coming back to directing?
It felt good. It was a fun project to work on. It was different for me. It was an all-girl cast, which is great. It was just an assignment. Look, I’m an old man, okay? I’m 66. I’m enjoying myself. I just enjoy watching the NBA Finals and sitting and relaxing and playing video games.
What do you play?
I don’t really love role-playing games, but I play almost anything else. First-person shooter, are you kidding? Nothing better. The last great game that came out was “Borderlands 2.” It was an unbelievable game. I love the “Assassins Creed” series. It’s a different art form [than film]. I don’t think it’s comparable. Video games are young. They’re still growing and finding their voices. But I do think they’re an art form.
Did you like the game that was made of “The Thing”?
It was all right. I was a character in it. I got killed.
Filmmaker John Carpenter is seen here while making 1982's "The Thing." Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
You once said that 35mm Panavision was the ideal look for movies. What do you think of digital?
I worked on it a little bit, not a whole lot. It’s the future. There’s nothing you can do about it now. Embrace it, I guess.
William Friedkin recently said that digital filmmaking fixes the conceptual problems of film: the scratches, the hair, the deterioration, the bad framing in theaters.
That’s absolutely true. The problem with digital is it degrades very quickly. So unless you preserve it you’re going to lose it. I’m not sure the studios are preserving them.
Which films of yours do you gravitate more towards these days?
I never watch my own movies. Never. I sit and watch them and go, “What was I thinking? What is wrong with me? Why did I do that?” I’m too critical. I never want to see them again.
You participated in the 1992 Sight and Sound poll for the greatest movies ever, in which you put on a lot of Hawks and Ford and Welles. Would you change that?
I can’t remember all that I put on there. But I think I’d have to put “Vertigo” back up there at the top. It’s brilliant.